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Aisle View: Laughter in the Heir

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Playgoers who left David Ives' 2011 School for Lies blissfully entranced need only be told that Ives -- working once more at the Classic Stage Company -- has done it again with The Heir Apparent. Those fortunate enough to have seen the first will no doubt gleefully head down to 13th Street for the second (through May 4); other theatergoers who are keen for wildly literate, wildly funny, wildly stylish comedy are advised to join the fun.

Ives -- who is best known for his early play All in the Timing, his late play Venus in Fur, and dozens of Encores! script adaptations in between -- has based Heir Apparent on the 1709 Le Légataire universel by Jean-François Regnard, a next-generation successor to Moliere at the Comédie Française. (School for Lies -- loosely grafted atop The Misanthrope -- and Heir Apparent are two of four classic French comedies that Ives has adapted, initially for Michael Kahn's Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.)

Ives doesn't just adapt these plays; he keeps them carefully in period but provides a continual overwash of up-to-the-minute anachronisms, so up to date in this case that he rhymes the heroine's name "Isabella" with last week's Encores! production of Most Happy Fella. The play is also peppered with a philosophical overlay of pure Marxism; the famed mirror scene from Duck Soup is lovingly inserted in this early eighteenth Century romp, and at one point I half expected Chico to stroll by the upstage window peddling tutsi fruitsi ice cream. The play -- set in yet another one of John Lee Beatty's friendly and openly-cluttered designs -- starts with the grinding of an old grandfather's clock which mixes chimes with what can only be described as a mechanical Bronx cheer. Which breaks the ice, as it were, even before the first rhymed couplet is hurled at us.

This is one of those doddering-old-codger-with-a-million plots, filled with delectable parts for delectable hams. Said codger is played by Paxton Whitehead, over-aged and floppy in nightdress and nightcap with earmuffs, looking like something out of Daumier (with costumes by David C. Woolard). On the other end of the scale is David Pittu, limner of numerous eccentrics over the years, as the scrupulous lawyer Scruple. They are the long and short of it, literally so; the lanky Whitehead towers over the two-foot ten Pittu. (Yes, he's two-foot ten here, working with shoes attached to his kneecaps, as "a lawyer no bigger than a loophole." Which contributes a dozen or so distinct laughs.)

These two actors work their usual comedic magic, although they are out-hammed by the man in the middle, Carson Elrod. Viewers who saw last summer's Explorers Club at the Manhattan Theatre Club will remember Elrod as the droll tribal native in blue body paint who turned out to be a first-rate mixologist. He served time in Peter and the Starcatcher as the pompous orphan Prentiss, and seems to be a head-of-the-class graduate of the Christian Borle Institute of scenery-chewing. At one point, Elrod engages in a knock-down fist-fight, while pretending to be an anachronistic Davey Crockett from Tennessee, which is as funny as anything we've seen of late. (Elrod is the one cast-member who originated his role in the 2011 premiere of The Heir Apparent.) The cast also includes Dave Quay, Claire Karpen, Amelia Pedlow and the veteran Suzanne Bertish, all of whom provide high comedy without quite the opportunities afforded Elrod, Pittu and Whitehead.

But it is Mr. Ives, and his director John Rando (of Urinetown and A Christmas Story) who make The Heir Apparent a ludicrously luscious affair. Unlike other new comedies recently arrived in town, this one is packed with characters, laughs, and enough information for us to discern an actual plot (such as it is). Plus two acts worth of dandily daffy rhymes, like one which mates "far Crimea" with--what else?--"diarrhea" plus some other nonsense about venomous enemas. Both of which directly stem from that sputtering grandfather's clock at curtain's rise, which is intrinsically linked to the play's core.